Like most academics, I read a lot. And I mean a lot: student papers, draft manuscripts and thesis chapters, manuscripts I’m peer reviewing, grant proposals, blog posts, and yes, newspapers and magazine articles and novels. So I see polished writing, and unpolished writing, and rough-draft writing. And I have that academic instinct to spot writing errors. I see lots of those, believe me – including, of course, in my own writing.
Some errors impede communication, and some are trivial. You’d think I’d rant about the former and forgive the latter, but I’m afraid I’m not that rational. I’m here today to rant about two trivial writing mistakes that really grate on me – and that are astonishingly common. That last bit matters (I’ll get to it).
Trivial writing mistake #1: overgeneralizing hyphenation from compound modifiers. English often uses two words working together to modify a noun: three-word phrase*, well-studied phenomenon, birch-tree grove, red-wavelength fluorescence. The two (or more) words that make up the compound modifier are hyphenated, and this makes their meaning clear (a heavy-metal detector is not the same things as a heavy metal detector, to borrow Wikipedia’s example). Many writers seem to overgeneralize from this and decide that the two words need a hyphen whenever they occur together, writing (for example) this phenomenon is well-studied and applied in the design of detectors for heavy-metals. Nope.
Trivial writing mistake #2: making a verb agree in number with the closest noun rather than its subject. For some reason, many people will write The use of organic acids, including acetic, lactic and citric acids, are common in food preservation. Nope. The verb (to be) agrees in number with the subject of the sentence (use, singular), not with the closest noun (acids, plural). So this sentence needs the singular form of to be: is, not are.**
I see each of these mistakes extremely often, and they really grate on me. And yet: they’re trivial, in the sense that they almost never conceal the meaning of what’s written. At worst, they indicate a writer who’s been careless. I suppose I could argue that evidence of carelessness in writing suggests the possibility of more important carelessness in the science. But if I’m honest, I don’t think that’s really it. I think these just grate on my because I know they’re “wrong”, and I’m pedantic and fussy.
Wait – why did I put “wrong” in scare quotes, in that last paragraph? Ah, that’s the interesting part, I think. These two mistakes are extremely common, and possibly becoming more so.*** So it might be possible to argue that they aren’t, in fact, mistakes, but rather variant usages on their way to being grammatically correct. I know, that might rankle you as much as it rankles me; but English doesn’t have a body in charge of enforcing distinctions between correct and incorrect constructions. Instead, our language is a set of conventions that are agreed upon between most writers and most readers – and those conventions change over time. (Decimate, for example, doesn’t mean kill every tenth one any more no matter how much a few stuffy pedants might argue that it does.) Maybe in another 30 years, detectors for heavy-metals won’t raise a single eyebrow, but someone will write a blog post complaining about people who write detectors for heavy metals.
So am I going to let writers of detectors for heavy-metals off the hook? No, not yet. One day that construction might be correct (<shudders>), but it isn’t now. Or more precisely: it’s common, but not yet (I think) accepted by the majority of readers as correct. So while it may communicate its subject clearly enough, I think it also communicates carelessness in writing. And oh, does it ever grate on me.
© Stephen Heard October 18, 2022
Image: Mitsakes were made. © opensourceway CC BY-SA 2.0 via flickr.com
*^Contented sigh at counting the words in three-word phrase – I love me a self-referential example. Ooh, self-referential example!
**^After writing this post, I discovered I’ve ranted about this particular error before. It’s one of many writing problems that gets introduced as a result of our fondness for long, complex sentences. In The Scientist’s Guide to Writing (Chapter 18), there’s a section headed “Each Complex Sentence Has a Simple Core”. The advice I give there: strip a sentence down to its simplest subject-verb-object core, and make sure it works that way (use is common, not use are common). Really, there’s some useful stuff in that book.
***^I’m not sure I’m right about them becoming more common. It’s entirely possible that they’ve always been with us and I’m just displaying the old-fogey fallacy (ooh, look, old-fogey fallacy) of thinking everything was better long ago.